A troubled frontier

A government circular aimed at ending commercialisation of forests in the terai affects the hills, too. In the process, it threatens to derail the CFM movement

Published: Tuesday 29 February 2000

A troubled frontier

On November 2, 1999, the department of forests ( dof ) and the Community Forestry Development Programme ( cfdp ), both under the ministry of forests and soil conservation, issued a circular to forest officials across the country to ask fug s to immediately stop commercialisation of timber. "However, all the district forest officers made changes in the content of the circular. Instead, they issued a notice asking fug s to stop all their forest-related activities," says Apsara Chapagain, a steering committee member of fecofun . "Now the forest rangers even prohibit the users' groups from entering their own forests. This is the time for trimming the twigs but we haven't been allowed to do anything like that inside the community-protected forest," she adds.

The decision, as K B Shrestha of cfdp , says, "was aimed at the terai region where the fug s are felling young sal trees for commercial purposes". It is not applicable to the hills , he adds. But district forest officials have included the hills too.

The terai has remained a troubled frontier. As the cfm programme enters the seventh year, the success in the hills is overshadowed by the failure in the terai . In fact, the World Bank, which assessed cfm in the terai , described it as a 'supreme failure'. The terai forests, which account for 35 per cent of the total forest area in Nepal, "is the real test of community forestry". But, so far, the government has shown reluctance in handing over the forests to the communities in the terai . Take Bara district in the terai , for example. The communities had to fight for control over forests. Under pressure, the government has finally given rights to six fug s. The users have worked day and night to regenerate the forests and are finally reaping the benefits of cfm.

But the picture is far from perfect. Of the 8,559 fug s in the country, 19 districts in the terai account for only 184. "In reality, the government does not intend giving the terai forests to the people," says Ramji Khanal, a member of the Damauli village fug in Bara. Most of the forests in the terai have been declared 'national', which technically debars handover to communities. As a matter of fact, says Deepak Gyawali, a Kathmandu-based policy analyst, "Policymakers will never allow the terai forests to be managed by the people as there is a strong nexus between politicians and the timber mafia."

What the policymakers have also forgotten to consider, before adopting cfm in the terai, is the complex socio-economic profile of the region. "The terai society is more heterogeneous, unlike in the hills. This makes it difficult to form fug s," says Anupam Bhatia (see box: Hills vs terai ).

As in the past, even today, a few powerful landlords (many of them migrants) control the land as well as the rich sal forests. "Most of the community forests were earlier private forests and controlled by powerful individuals of the villages. Even after the change in status, these individuals continue to influence the working of the fug s," says a forest official. It is observed that inside community forests some users have even started their own plantation of commercially-beneficial species like cardamom and bamboo. "Most of the people are not aware of their rights. Taking advantage of this, a few individuals are calling the shots and virtually controlling the forest," says Balkrishna Khanal of dof . This has even pushed the traditional forest-users away from the forest. According to dof estimates, the traditional users of the terai forest have been pushed away by seven kilometres from the forest.

The Master Plan also dealt intensively with the hills, while overlooking the terai . In fact, in 1989, when the Plan was adopted, it did not suggest handing over the terai forests to the people. It was only in the 1993 Act that both the areas were given equal treatment. But bureaucrats are yet to change their mindset, allege some experts. "If the government is really serious about community forestry, then it should clear the formation of fug s for which files are piling in dof offices," says Bhim Prasad Shrestha. But forest secretary Bista says: "We don't want to hand over the terai forests in a haste."

Says K B Shrestha, "As there is one operational line for both the hills and the terai , community forestry is not successful in the plains. In fact, we are making a different working plan for the terai ." Besides, he says, "In the hills, community forestry started in the 1970s, while it was introduced in the terai in the 1990s. So it will take time to make a headway."

A problem area
Until the handing over of forest areas in the hills there were no conflicts, but in terai there seems to be an understanding between the forest officials and the timber mafia, say many experts. The latter manages to get hold of not only community forests but also mature government forests. And, once the ownership of certain forest areas is shifted to the community to which they belong, they immediately start commercial logging operations. The result: flooding of the local market with timber. This directly competes with the timber supply from government-controlled agencies, which is not good news for the forest department. Besides, say forest experts, this way only a handful of people have benefited from cfm .

"We learnt from the past mistakes and handed over the forest areas to the communities," says Mahant Thakur, the country's forest minister. "But what we have to guard against is that the liberal policy should not be exploited by a few powerful individuals for their vested interests," he says.

The circular was, thus, an effort to address the conflicts arising from the present management guidelines. However, argues Balkrishna Khanal, "We don't intend to get back the ownership of community forest and that is not possible either. We will allow them to sell only surplus products and that too not below the royalty rate fixed by the government, which stands at approximately $3 (Nepali Rs 200) per cubic feet of the timber." Elaborating on the new plan, he says that if one community has a surplus then that should be sold to the neighbouring community. And if the latter does not want that surplus, it can be sold to the next close community. Only if there is no demand for timber among themselves, does the question of selling their products in the market arise, he says.

Forest officials argue that the aim of cfm is for meeting the basic needs like fodder, fuelwood and limited timber needs, and not for commercial exploitation. However, villagers counter it by saying that the laws do not say so and, in any case, the money is being spent for developmental activities. fecofun members view the government's latest move as a systematic plan to curtail community powers. "It shows that the government doesn't want to hand over the forests to the people," says Kazishrestha.

Whether in the hills or the terai , fecofun has decided to wage an 'all-out war' with the government. "We have collected reactions from all the users' groups. Now negotiations are going on with the government to withdraw the circular, which doesn't have any legal backing because it was not decided by the Cabinet but by the whim of some officials," says Chapagain. "We have decided to challenge the decision in court if the circular is not withdrawn," she says. As it organises fug s spread across 74 districts, according to sources, fecofun has started lobbying with external donor agencies too.

The agitation is gradually spreading all over Nepal. fug members have started to retaliate in many terai districts, such as Nabalparashi, Rupendehi, Bardia, Jhapa and Ilam. Now officials seem to have realised the pandemonium that the circular is likely to create both at the local and national level. Says Balkrishna Khanal: "That was an interim circular and it is already in the process of modification. The forest department has already submitted a softer mechanism to the government, which will fix the standard for using forest produce by fug s."

Line of control
Another unusual conflict haunts cfm progress in Nepal: that of boundary disputes between fug s and individuals. A forest under a village development committee can be given to fug s under municipality jurisdiction. Also, as encroachment into forest areas was once encouraged, many users have agriculture land inside community forests. This has given them traditional ownership rights which, in turn, gives rise to disputes over the boundary of the forest area to be managed by a community.

Worse, the conflict is no more confined to the community. It has reached the courts, some of them the Supreme Court. According to Dil Kumar Khanal, legal advisor, fecofun , there is an average of 20 boundary cases pending in every district court, while there are some five cases pending in the Supreme Court. But what baffles both the government and non-government forestry experts is the heavy dependence of the community on dof for solving their dispute. "Nobody from the fug would like to have a fight with another member of the village," says Durga Bahadur of Piughar village. Bhim Prasad Shrestha blames the department for not demarcating areas properly while handing over the forests. As a solution, dof has started intensive survey of the area and the users before handing over the forest.

Will these conflicts affect the sustainability of the project? Says Steve Hunt: "Though it is very difficult to predict the sustainability of the project right now, the conflicts cannot derail it." There is a trend of members of local elected bodies like village development councils also being elected to the fug committees. This will reduce conflicts, he says, adding: "There should be a more formal link between the two."

Rabi Bahadur Bista feels such conflicts are inherent. However, they should not have the potential to derail the cfm process. Warns Anupam Bhatia, "They should not be ignored or avoided as it might lead to degradation again."

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